Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Drug Couriers and Nigerian Judiciary

Does it bother you? I mean the increasing menace of trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances and its concomitant effect on innocent Nigerians who are subjected to humiliating searches in and out of airports around the world. Hardly will a week go by without records of arrest. Each year, the number of arrests snowballed. People of all ages, gender and creed have been caught trafficking hard drugs in and out of Nigeria — from teenagers to octogenarians, students, artisans, graduates, etc.
In an interview in the Sunday Vanguard of August 31, 2008, the Chairman of the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Alhaji Ahmadu Giade, made some startling revelations about how the drug war is being fought in Nigeria by his organisation. Part of the major breakthrough of the organisation was the seizure of 14.2 tonnes of cocaine at the Island port. This, according to him, was the biggest seizure in Africa and the fifth highest seizure in the world. Earlier, under the leadership of his predecessor, Alhaji Bappa Jama’are, 248.3 kilograms of heroin, with a market value of N20.8 billion, was seized. To show that Nigeria is top-ranking on the ignoble list of drug trafficking transit countries, Alhaji Giade gave some statistics of arrest and prosecution in the last three years.
According to him, in 2005, the NDLEA had 779 cases of drugs; in 2006, the Agency filed 1,363 arrests, while in 2007, it had 1,508 cases. It is heartwarming that NDLEA has won 12,481 cases and lost only 207. However, the big concern is that no sooner are these drug couriers and barons convicted than they are released because of the discretionary powers used by some judges to grant these criminals “option of fine”. Why would the Nigerian judiciary covertly or overtly aid and abet such heinous crime against humanity, like drug trafficking, by giving arrested drug couriers “option of fine”? This is mind-boggling! To further worsen the situation, the minimum penalty of seven years imprisonment for drug offences seems to me like a slap on the wrist. In other climes, a minimum of 17 years to life imprisonment or even death penalty are imposed on drug trafficking to discourage involvement in the illicit trade. News media has it that about 20 Nigerians are currently awaiting the hangman’s noose in Indonesia alone.
Ironically, the Nigerian government is said to be pleading with Indonesian authorities to spare the lives of these drug traffickers. This, to me, is unnecessary. In 1984, the administration of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) promulgated a decree imposing death penalty on drug trafficking. Though, a huge outcry greeted the execution of Bernard Ogedengbe, Bartholomew Owoh and Akanni Ojuolape for drug trafficking, this was largely because of the decree’s retroactive effect. While I would not call for death penalty for drug trafficking, life imprisonment without an option of fine will likely serve as a disincentive, hence there is a need to impose stiff penalty on trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. In a paper titled NDLEA: A Decade of Drug Law Enforcement in Nigeria, Alabi Uwiagbo said “Today, Nigerians hear more about cocaine, heroin and other narcotics than they hear about common malaria drugs in the media. And today, the image of Nigeria has suffered for the menace of hard drugs than from anything else. Apart from the image problem, hard drugs have the potential to destroy social life, particularly among the nation’s youth population”.
How true! This view was aired way back 1999 and the situation has not changed much in 2009. While stiffer penalty is imperative to curb drug abuse and trafficking, other solutions must include aggressive and sustained sensitisation of Nigerians on the evils of drug trafficking as well as creation of enabling environment for citizens self actualisation by the government. I am deeply convinced that with significant reduction in unemployment and abject poverty, that has made 70 million Nigerians to live on less than N65 a day, people will be discouraged to allowing themselves to be recruited as drug couriers. However, urgent as these measures are, what cannot wait is the need to get the Nigeria Judicial Council (NJC) to call Nigerian judges to order to stop being “Father Christmas” by giving “option of fine” to drug traffickers.